Philadelphia Film Festival: The Descent

The first film in my little marathon turned out to be The Descent. It played in a sold out theater at the Ritz East in Philadelphia, and if this experience was any indication, I’m going to have a good week… Since this film is scheduled to be widely released in the US this summer, I’ll try to make this a spoiler-free review.

Horror films are often marginalized and given little examination, perhaps because of it’s low budget and exploitive origins. However, I’ve often observed that producing a good horror film is one of the more challenging tasks a filmmaker could take on. Horror stories often require certain leaps of faith, which, in turn, places more emphasis on all other aspects of the film. For a good horror movie, everything needs to be there, including the writing (important for any movie, but horror films usually require a little more imagination), the characters, the acting, the cinematography, and the music, amongst many other aspects. In short, for a Horror movie to be good, it has to do everything a regular drama does, and then some.

With The Descent, director Neil Marshall has succeeded in crafting a genuinely creepy and engaging horror film. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a good horror film in the theater, and the packed house of movie lovers no doubt made the experience of seeing the film that much better.

The film is about a group five female friends who regularly engage in adventurous activities like white-water rafting, hiking, and, in this film, spelunking. Naturally, one of the more reckless members of the group takes her unsuspecting friends to an uncharted cave, and the group promptly gets lost. To make things worse, it appears that they’re not alone in the darkness…

Set almost entirely underground, the lack of light provides a lush canvas for Sam McCurdy’s gorgeous cinematography. Films set in the dark are often confusing and disorienting, and while there are times when Marshall uses that to emphasize the claustrophobic environment, he also uses lighting to contextualize the situations with great effect. The score is also notable, though not showy. It doesn’t call attention to itself the way a lot of horror scores do, and it is quite effective at setting the mood.

The film is filled with well-orchestrated “boo!” moments, but there’s more at work here than just cheap thrills. From the moment things start to get really bad for our heroines, Marshall is relentless. He plays the monster movie straight and even after the monsters are revealed, he’s able to keep the intensity high. This is partly due to great execution (especially in the first reveal), but it’s also because Marshall actually spends some time giving a little depth to the characters so that we care about them. The characterizations and relationships are effectively communicated through very subtle touches, and I liked that Marshall trusts his audience to pick up on such cues. The actresses do a quality job here as well… indeed, I can’t think of another horror movie where all of the main characters were women. In any case, it’s a fine ensemble.

The film is gory, but nothing struck me as being excessive. There are lots of homages to other films, including Deliverance, Carrie, and Predator (amongst others).

The film’s been getting a lot of buzz here, and it has already met with international success, audiences often proclaiming it the best horror film of the year. There is some controversy over the fact that the US version has a different ending, but I think that is a topic for another post. I’ve read about the original ending, and to be honest, I think they both sound effective. The film is not perfect, but I’d recommend it highly for those in need of a scare. (***)

Update 4.15.06: I’ve created a category for all posts from the Philadelphia Film Festival.